Women's Bodies Remain Battlegrounds in the Culture Wars

Recently released feminist books offer multifaceted critiques of gender and the culture wars.

This spring and summer have been remarkable ones for books about sex, gender and reproduction -- the avid women's issues reader has been up to her ears in provocative feminist tomes.  

What's amazing about the books discussed below is not just the powerful arguments they make individually, but the way they together paint a complete picture of our culture wars at home and abroad. That broad picture reveals the ugly truth that women's bodies remain battlegrounds for ideological struggles all over the world.

But there is something heartening in the lifting of voices both within the books and by the authors themselves. Robust, articulate, and multifaceted critique of patriarchy in its many forms storming bookshelves all at once has to be a good sign.  

The Purity Myth (Seal Press)  

Jessica Valenti's The Purity Myth addresses the virgin-whore dichotomy as it manifests itself in our modern lives. Anyone who knows their basic feminist theory is aware that what are purportedly opposite ends of the spectrum of women's behavior - the slut and the virgin - are actually two sides of the same coin. Both the over-sexualization of girls and the obsession with their purity reduces women to their bodies and sexuality. Whether - as Valenti relates - we're equating them to used gum in abstinence-only classes, urging them to join the "modesty movement," or buying high heels for "prostitots," we're participating in the Purity Myth.  Valenti goes even further by reminding us that the losing-your-virginity/giving-it-up terminology we use to describe first sexual encounters is dated and demeaning, implying that being sexually untouched is something of great value.  

What's amazing about the publicity surrounding Valenti's book is how controversial her thesis remains. Today Show hosts Kathy Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotbe responded to Valenti's well-reasoned arguments with trite platitudes about the "consequences" of sex while "Observe and Report" demonstrated how far the rape culture Valenti describes has permeated the mainstream. The American psyche seems unable to conceive of a culture in which rejecting degrading objectification of women does not mean corralling them into a chaste corner. Valenti argues powerfully for a middle ground where women are "more than the sum of their sexual parts."  

Quiverfull (Beacon Press)  

If Valenti's book explores the pervasive myths and rotten information that dogs most American girls, Kathryn Joyce's Quiverfull examines the extreme margins of that spectrum, in the midst of a home-schooling, housewife-centric culture of fundamentalist Christianity. We know the Quiverfull advocates through their websites, which advocate an extreme anti-abortion, anti-birth control mentality and lifestyle. But Joyce goes far deeper. These aren't just the tongue-speaking evangelicals mocked by Borat and the culture at large, but also a growing movement within the "reformed" Calvinist church (i.e some mainline Protestant denominations unhappy with the egalitarianism in their faiths). This movement emphasizes the ideals of "male headship" and "wifely submission" claiming the belief that man is to woman as Jesus is to his worshippers, a guide to be followed and a voice to be heeded. Liberation through submission is the gospel for womanly duty within this paradigm.  

Quiverfull in some ways is reminiscent of Jon Krakauer's incredible Under the Banner of Heaven, in that it spends time amongst the devotees of the Quiverfull doctrine and its spiritual kin, depicting a different kind of "life on the edge." Joyce documents the rivalries, feuds, excommunications, and sometimes extreme poverty which families experience when they embrace Christian Patriarchy, all evidence that makes its cult-like properties apparent.  

But Joyce is not merely telling a story that affects one group - her message is one of concern for all of us. The Quiverfull movement is more than a cult on the sidelines. Its members see their flocks of children as armies, crusaders against feminism, secularism and hedonism. And perhaps more ominously, their numbers are potent enough to effect political change. Some of those public policy echoes are seen in Valenti's book and Michelle Goldberg's work, discussed below. Joyce's meticulously-researched, densely-packed book, then, is not just an exploration but also a warning signal that this movement should be ignored at our own peril.  

Read more from Kathryn Joyce on the Quiverfull movement.  

The Means of Reproduction (Penguin Press)  

In The Means of Reproduction, Michelle Goldberg's takes the domestic ideological tussle Valenti and Joyce describe and reveals how it affects policy abroad. This phenomenon is most obvious in the flip-flopping reversals and reinstatements of the Global Gag Rule, leading to dramatic shifts in care options for millions of women.

But The Means of Reproduction offers us a detailed and much-needed history lesson as well. Goldberg opens by describing the population control/family planning craze of the mid-century, a drive to get birth control to developing nations that was nonpartisan and, unfortunately, had a strong whiff of paternalism to it. Goldberg shows us the feminist awakening led by women in the population movement who felt that it simply wasn't enough to provide women birth control -- giving them social equality had to be part of the deal.  

And then of course, Goldberg takes us through Reagan revolution, and rise of the religious right as we now know it, an anti-abortion, anti-family planning juggernaut which made the intra-arguments within the population movement pale in comparison to the "culture wars." Suddenly, politicians like George Bush Senior (once nicknamed "rubbers" due to his enthusiasm for prophylactics, as Goldberg points out) forgot their eagerness for population control in an effort to kowtow to the reactionary bible-waving crowd.  

Goldberg also details the seminal victories in this battle, including the famous 1994 Cairo and Beijing conferences, at which family planning and women's rights victories were won on paper. But the reality on the ground failed to catch up, and some of the book's most heartbreaking passages describe the trials of women in countries like Nicauragua where religious influence has curtailed abortion rights - and the brave women activists fighting those restrictions.  

Finally, Goldberg concisely and clearly delineates the battle lines between "rights" and "rites." Is exporting gender equality, particularly in terms of rituals like female genital mutilation, a form of cultural imperialism? Or is it a matter of basic human dignity? Goldberg argues the latter, but she believes it's crucial to stand in solidarity with women all over the world waging local and internal struggles for bodily self-determination.  

Read an interview with Michelle Goldberg.  

My Little Red Book (Twelve Press)

On a lighter note, Rachel Kauder Nalebuff brings a universal female bodily experience out into the open with My Little Red Book, an exploration of menstruation - particularly that exciting, and/or traumatizing, first period. Her book takes the form of a collection of short- to medium-length memories, poems, essays and narratives. Julie at feministe has offered some legitimate criticisms of the book, particularly the overabundance of typically white, suburban and young stories in its  pages.

However, there are some amazing variations on the theme from remote places and long-ago times that are just fascinating - from Kenya, China, Turkey and Ghana to the Comanche nation. There's a Holocaust story and a Cultural Revolution one. Despite such huge differences, common themes do emerge within the stories: shame, shock, fear that people will notice, and either intense bonding between women or longing for such bonding. Women may talk about periods with each other, but women's bodies are still shameful, and menstruation particularly so. This book aims to break the taboo, and it's an admirable effort.  

While the stories could have been culled more selectively in order pack more of a punch, there is immense value in this kind of exercise. As did "The Vagina Monologues," collections of first-person stories can go miles in de-stigmatizing women's bodies. This book works well as a gift for pubescent girls who can learn that their feelings of relief, sadness, alienation or horror are not abnormal. And I'd love to see it lying around coffee tables in the direct view of men, who might be alienated or icked out by this basic part of every woman's life.  

Front Lines: "Words of Choice" (The New Press)

Writer and RH Reality Check blogger Cindy Cooper's "Words of Choice" weaves together humor, pathos, and politics to paint a picture of reproductive rights in America. She juxtaposes excerpts from a variety of different sources, personal and political, public and private, that all illustrate the state of reproductive freedom in our country. Some of the most notable moments come right from the Roe vs. Wade decision, congressional testimony about so-called partial birth abortion, an Onion parody, the word of a nurse injured in a clinic bombing, poetry, songs and more. The tapestry woven by these disparate excerpts is surprisingly complete, and may leave the reader or viewer with a good deal of righteous anger towards anyone who would use blanket laws to restrict something so personal and intense as reproduction. In this way, it's reminiscent of the 2007 anthology Choice, except Cooper's intentions are more defiantly (and refreshingly) political. "Words of Choice" as worthwhile a play to read as it must be to watch.  

"Words of Choice"  appears in the anthology Front Lines edited by Alexis Greene, and Shirley Lauro--all of which is worth reading. Front Lines is a group of political plays by American women, many of which got considerable media attention when they were first staged ("The Exonerated" about wrongful imprisonment and "No Child,' which tackles education in particular). It's exciting to see so many of these plays together because they do make a powerful point about creative women taking on a whole range of issues, from domestic violence to war to legal injustice. Any lingering stereotypes that political writing is a masculine realm are rendered ridiculous.

Read Cindy Cooper's RH Reality Check blog.  

Supergirls Speak Out (Simon and Schuster)

Fighting back against the cult of overachievement is an uphill endeavor. Books like Courtney E. Martin's Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, which targeted the toll of perfectionism on young women's bodies, and Alexandra Robbins's The Overachievers, which followed high school students through the college application process, were the vanguard of questioning whether all this impressive output on the part of the millenials was healthy.  

Liz Funk's Supergirls Speak Out adds to this conversation, pointing out the anxiety, body-image issues, and low self-esteem that can accompany that drive towards surface perfection in teen girls.  Funk, herself only a senior in college, followed several younger girls closely and details some quietly disturbing behavior in her teen subjects - like obsessively rewriting paper drafts for endless teacher approval when an A was already inevitable, or laying out coordinated outfits and makeup palettes each night. Funk's interest in pop culture--and knowledge of the tv shows and music that make up her subjects' frame of references--is a key part of the book. She analyzes the conflicting messages celebrity culture sends and how that can lead to a spiral of confusion. Like My Little Red BookSupergirls works particularly well when targeted towards the girls it describes, as a way of preparing young women for the issues they face or making them feel less alone.

Sarah Seltzer is an RH Reality Check staff writer and resident pop culture expert. Sarah is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Bitch, Venus Zine, Womens eNews, and Publishers Weekly among other places. She formerly taught English in a Bronx public school.
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